WGS 393 • Austen, Eliot, and Woolf
In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf acknowledges that "we think back through our mothers if we are women." This is at once a statement about literary influence and evolution and an insight into that confirmation of one's vocation as a writer that comes from discovering a common experience and outlook. In her 1919 essay that restored George Eliot to serious criticism, Woolf cites a bit of Eliot's conversation to reaffirm that sense one may have, on a small and large scale, of tradition and influence: "We know by our own experience how very much others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must have the same effect upon others." Despite her isolation from other women writers and her criticism of "silly lady novelists," Eliot asserted that women writers had "a precious speciality, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience." Finding female precursors, learning that one was a link in the chain of women engaged in written acts of self-creationthese were the discoveries that allowed writers like Woolf and Eliot to fulfill their potential within the constraints of authorship and authority known to British female authors since Austen. This course takes up the question of canonicity and literary quality through a study of three female authors who have often, but not always, been considered in isolation and as isolated. The goal of our discussions will be to discover how writers working outside hegemonic sites of literary production nonetheless engage in sophisticated acts of self-authorization by building up their own networks of precursors and by adapting the narrative tools and strategies of their most successful contemporaries to their own purposes, often in very subversive ways. We will take up the exemplary cases of Austen, Eliot, and Woolf as three "moments" in the self-conscious and self-motivated formation of a women's canon. Initially, we will be charting Austen's subversive use of narrative techniques and strategies for self-assertion (especially her use of spatial imagery and enclosures, her use of free indirect speech as a dialectical challenge to hegemonic optics, and her parodies of contemporary "lady" authors). Next we will move to Eliot, who was less concerned with being considered a "lady novelist" and more interested in challenging herself as a writer who was of necessity a self-educated woman. The third case study will be Woolf's self-conscious building of a female tradition in order to establish her own brand of modernism against the model of her male counterparts--to prove herself an innovator, not a mere experimenter. In all three cases, we will look not only to biographical/historical data and to publishing history but also into intertextual reference.